WHL hammers Winterhawks for undisclosed “player benefit violations”

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The Portland Winterhawks are being punished for what the Western Hockey League calls a “series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons.”

The league announced today that the Winterhawks will be barred from participating in the first five rounds of the 2013 bantam draft and will forfeit their first-round picks in the following four drafts.

GM/head coach Mike Johnston has also been suspended for the balance of the 2012-13 season, plus the playoffs.

In addition, the organization has been fined $200,000.

“Our independent investigation in this case revealed there were multiple violations over an extended period for player benefits that are not permitted under WHL Regulations and were not disclosed to the WHL,” said league commissioner Ron Robison in a statement.

“It should also be noted through the course of the investigation there was no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players that would be contrary to WHL Regulations as previous media reports indicated.”

No specifics of the violations were disclosed in the announcement; however, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the league’s investigation did not uncover any “irregularities” with regards to the club’s recruitment and acquisition of top prospect Seth Jones.

The sanctions come in the wake of a dramatic turnaround for the Winterhawks. When Johnston took over early in 2008-09, he inherited a team that had won just 47 games in the previous three seasons. Fast forward to the present and the team is coming off back-to-back appearances in the WHL finals.

Recent first-round NHL picks out of Portland:

2010: Ryan Johansen, 4th overall by Columbus
2010: Nino Niederreiter, 5th overall by NY Islanders
2011: Sven Baertschi, 13th overall by Calgary
2011: Joe Morrow, 23rd overall by Pittsburgh
2012: Derrick Pouliot, 8th overall by Pittsburgh

Update (4:25 p.m. ET):

The club has released a statement outlining the violations that it’s been found to have committed.

—- A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player’s family and a summer training program
—- Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights 2-4 times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland
—- Twice in the last five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen
—- The Winterhawks provided a cell phone for its team captain for a period of three seasons

Not surprisingly, the club feels the punishment is overly harsh.

“After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed,” Johnston said in the release.

“We believe that apart from recruiting trips and parents’ weekend, there is no prohibition in the rules governing flights for players’ parents, which were the majority of the infractions. We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed. Despite our objections, the league has made its decision, and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship.”

Image of Mike Johnston via winterhawks.com

Revisiting the Patric Hornqvist-James Neal trade three years later

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When Jim Rutherford took over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer of 2014 he was inheriting a team that was coming off of one of its more disappointing postseason exits, having blown a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in the second-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Even though the roster contained a trio of superstars in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, it was still a badly flawed team that was short on depth (it had absolutely none), had little salary cap room to maneuver with, and had a lot of work to do before it could again be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

To begin re-tooling his roster Rutherford’s first major trade was to ship James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

With the Penguins and Predators meeting in the Stanley Cup Final beginning on Monday, and with Hornqvist and Neal still playing prominent roles on their respective teams, we should take a quick look back at that trade to see how it has all shaped out.

I want to start with this: I will be the first to admit that when the trade was initially completed I thought the Penguins were going to come out on the short end of it because the return just didn’t seem to make a ton of sense. But hey, we all make mistakes.

It wasn’t that Hornqvist wasn’t any good or didn’t have any value, it just didn’t seem to be the type of return that was going to change much. Not only was Neal one of the NHL’s elite goal-scorers at the time (his 0.49 goals per game average in his three full seasons with Pittsburgh was tied with Evgeni Malkin for third best in the NHL during that stretch) but the return itself did not really seem to fix any of their issues. They were not getting any meaningful salary cap savings (it actually cost them more money after Spaling’s contract extension), they were not getting any younger, they were not doing anything to increase their depth. It just seemed like they should have been able to get more, or at least accomplish more, given the type of player they were trading. Goal scorers like Neal had proven to be during his time in Pittsburgh are not exactly easy to find.

It simply seemed to be a trade that was going to be, at best, a lateral move for a different type of player.

Hornqvist is a human wrecking ball that does most of his work around the front of the net, while Neal is a pure sniper with one of the NHL’s most lethal shots that is capable of scoring from anywhere in the offensive zone.

When you look at their production since the trade, there is almost no difference in what they have done for their new teams in both the regular season and playoffs.

Offensively, they have been virtually the same player. Neal has been a slightly better goal scoring (which is to be expected given the skill set of the two players)

But sometimes a “lateral” move for a different type of player is exactly what a team needs.

In this case, both teams.

From a Pittsburgh perspective, Hornqvist has given them the type of net-front presence they previously lacked before the trade. Even though his style of play is loathed by opposing goaltenders and fans, it is more of an organized, controlled chaos. He is not prone to taking the type of retaliatory nonsense that used to plague the Penguins toward the end of the Dan Bylsma era, making almost any game they were losing devolve into madness. Neal could at times be lured into that sort of game by opponents. That trade, and several of the roster changes (as well as the promotion of Mike Sullivan and his “just play” mantra) that followed over the past two years have all but eliminated that from their game. It has helped. A lot.

But that isn’t to say that Nashville didn’t get a lot out of this, too. While Pittsburgh ended up getting a Holmstrom-like presence to cause havoc around the net, the Predators were able to pick up the type of top-line goal-scoring threat they had been lacking for years. Before acquiring Neal the Predators had only ever had four different players top 30-goals in a single season. Only one scored more than 31. Remember, this trade was before Filip Forsberg turned into the goal-scoring force that he is now. While Neal’s goal-scoring has dropped a bit since the move away from Pittsburgh he is still scoring goals at close to a 30-goal pace over an 82-game season. His 0.35 goals per game average with the Predators is still among the top-25 players in the league and that is nothing to overlook.

When looking at it strictly from a numbers perspective neither team really comes out that far ahead three years later. It has turned out to be a deal that for different reasons has benefited each team equally.

Sometimes that is all you are looking for in a trade.

Laviolette, Sullivan meet in 1st all-US coaches Cup Final

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Hockey history will be made for American coaches in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Cup has been handed out 89 times to the champion of the NHL since 1927. For the first time, two American coaches will face off in the final as the Nashville Predators’ Peter Laviolette goes up against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mike Sullivan.

It’s just the seventh time the Cup will be won by a U.S.-born coach.

“Having two American coaches lead their team in the Stanley Cup Final highlights the continued growth and evolution of the sport in our country,” USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said. “We have more coaches in our country than ever before, and two of our very best are in the final.”

Laviolette and Sullivan are among six U.S.-born current coaches in the NHL, along with the Blue Jackets’ John Tortorella, Red Wings’ Jeff Blashill, Devils’ John Hynes and Islanders’ Doug Weight.

The pair is already on the exclusive list of U.S. coaches to win the Cup: Bill Stewart with the Blackhawks in 1938, “Badger” Bob Johnson with the Penguins in 1991, Tortorella with the Lightning in 2004, Laviolette with the Hurricanes in 2006, Dan Bylsma with the Penguins in 2009 and Sullivan with the Penguins last year.

All of the other Cup-winning coaches are Canadian.

It took until 2012 for two U.S. captains to meet in the final when the Kings’ Dustin Brown faced the Devils’ Zach Parise. Brown, who raised it in 2012 and 2014, is one of just two U.S. captains to win it after the Stars’ Derian Hatcher in 1999.

Brown and Parise embraced the significance of their meeting in the final five years ago. Laviolette and Sullivan might still, but the Predators’ hyper-focused coach isn’t thinking about it as a special occasion while preparing for Game 1 in Pittsburgh on Monday night.

“Not really,” said Laviolette, one of just four coaches to take three different teams to the final. “Sully’s a good coach. I know him, but it’s not about that. It’s about the Stanley Cup. It’s about two teams playing.”

Laviolette, from Franklin, Massachusetts, and Sullivan, from Marshfield, Massachusetts, grew up about an hour apart and are three hours apart in age. Each coached the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins, served on Boston’s staff briefly and won the Cup in his second NHL coaching stint.

Asked about joining Dick Irvin, Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan as the only coaches to take three different teams to the final, the 52-year-old Laviolette quipped, “Probably means that I got fired a lot.” As recently as November, an online sportsbook had him listed at 13-2 odds as the first coach fired this season when the Predators lost eight of their first 11 games.

Now he and Sullivan are facing off for hockey’s biggest prize, starting the best-of-seven series on Monday at Pittsburgh.

“It’s fun to see,” Ogrean said. “The only unfortunate thing is that only one of them can win.”

 

The Predators built the NHL’s best defense, and it is going to be around for a while

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The Nashville Predators are preparing to play in their first Stanley Cup Final after marching through the Western Conference playoffs.

Their appearance in this year’s Final is being looked at as a little bit of a surprise because of their place in the standings among the NHL’s playoff teams (16th out of 16 during the regular season) but this was still a team that was looked at before the season as a legitimate contender. They had a disappointing first half that kind poured some cold water on the preseason hype, but since starting 17-16-7 the Predators have put together a rather dominating 36-17-5 stretch (playoffs included) since the first week of January.

They have a defensive unit that rivals any other in the NHL to thank for a lot of that success.

The addition of P.K. Subban over the summer to a group that already included Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm has given the Predators one of the most dominant top-four groupings in the league, and they all perfectly fit the modern NHL game.

They can call skate at a high level, they can all move the puck, they can all contribute offensively. And they can all play major minutes.

Through the first three rounds of the playoffs coach Peter Laviolette has leaned heavily on that quartet, giving each of them an average of 23 minutes of ice-time per game, meaning that just about every time you look at the TV one of those four players is going to be patrolling the ice. Last week I looked at the ice-time distribution of Nashville’s Stanley Cup final opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and how injuries (specifically the one to Kris Letang) has forced coach Mike Sullivan to take a defense by committee approach where all six defenders on a given night are getting almost the exact same ice-time. Each one plays roughly 30-35 percent of the game in what is a rather unconventional approach for a Stanley Cup Finalist.

In Nashville, it is a little different with each of the top-four playing more than 40 percent of the game, while the bottom pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin (two solid defensemen in their own right) are only playing about 20 percent of the game … or an average of about 11 minutes per game.

Following their Game 7 win against the Ottawa Senators, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz referred to Nashville’s defense as having “four Erik Karlssons,” and while that might be a little bit of an exaggeration (Karlsson is the NHL’s best defenseman and there probably are not four other defensemen in the league even close to him) it is at least telling as to how much respect this unit has around the league and how good they are.

But what should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Western Conference is that this unit is going to be around for quite a while and still in the prime of their careers

When looking at the top-four, Subban is the “old man” of the group currently at age 28. They are also all signed for at least two more seasons beyond this one at a combined cap hit of just a little over $19 million per season.

That is a group that contains two of the top-six offensive defensemen in the league (Subban and Josi) over the past three seasons and two of the best shot suppression defensemen (Ekholm and Ellis) over the same stretch (out of more than 250 defensemen to play at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey since 2014-15, Ekholm is seventh in shot attempts against per 60 minutes; Ellis is 45th).

When you combine their ability with the fact that quartet has an average age of just 26.7 years old it is an incredible bargain against the salary cap.

They are backbone of this team, and a big reason why no matter what happens over the next weeks on the ice the Predators should be a formidable contender in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.

Here are your officials for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final

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The NHL has announced its officials for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.

They are as follows…

Referees: Wes McCauley, Brad Meier, Dan O’Halloran, Kevin Pollock

Linesmen: Scott Cherrey, Shane Heyer, Brad Kovalchik, Brian Murphy

Overall it’s a pretty experienced group of officials as O’Halloran, Pollock and Meier are among the eight most experienced officials the NHL has in terms of games called in their careers.

McCauley is near the top of the NHL in terms of penalties called per game, while Pollock is near the bottom of the league and seems to fit more into the “let them play” style of officiating. O’Halloran and Meier are not much higher, so you probably should not expect this to turn into a special teams series.

Of course, no matter who the referees are, by the end of Game 2 most of the coaches, players and fans from each side will probably not be happy with any of them.

All referee data via Scouting The Refs